By Antoinette Rahn
Brutalist design may seem like the latest example of a style once thought to be passé, coming around for another moment in the spotlight. However, not unlike brutalism itself, the truth is a bit more complex.
The brutalist style first appeared within the architecture of 1950s Europe. Hard edges, raw use of concrete, and free from ornate or illustrious composition. It appears unfinished and exposed, and radiates a stark simplicity. These are some descriptions used for this style of design.
Brutalism Born of Necessity
Just like some of today’s most popular antiques and collectibles, brutalist architecture was born out of necessity. A need to efficiently rebuild in a post-war society opened the door. Architects brought forth what was described as “(a) brand of architectural honesty.” This is according to Nikil Saval, in an October 2016 New York Times article.
That ‘honesty’ was met with some applause, but more often criticism; with some describing the style as ugly, cold and disconnected, unwelcoming, and well, brutal. However, as Kimberly Hong, director of consignments for Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery explains, the term brutalist is multi-dimensional.
“The term Brutalist is a little conflicting. It began as an architectural term and has been later adopted in a different way toward art and design. Brutalism, at times, refers to the Art Brut movement. In essence, relies on the French word ‘brut’ meaning raw,” Hong states. “Brutalist design tends to use wood and metal elements and is often sculptural in composition. The word ‘raw’ or ‘brut’ can refer to the material that is sometimes left in its raw state. Yet, more so its the handling which appears raw and expressive.
“Brutalist art and design tends to exhibit sharp edges and texture emphasizing the ‘rawness’ of the work,” Hong explains.
Influence Begins With Structures
Within a decade of the first brutalist structures being erected, the elements of this style began emerging elsewhere. Furniture, lighting and decorative art. Sharp sides, geometric shapes, and a jagged appearance found its way into interiors. Inside homes, offices, and museums. This is due to the vision of early brutalist makers such as Paul Evans and Curtis Jere.
The initial fascination with interior design of a brutalist nature occurred during a small period of time. A sub-category of mid-century modernism, it took shape during the late 1950s into the mid-1970s. It was and still is easily identifiable, once you know what to look for, said Anna Brockway, co-founder and CMO of DECASO (Decorative Arts Society), a curated online aggregate focusing on classic modernist and antique decorative art and furniture.
“For décor and furniture, look for raw and abstract geometric forms that play with rough textures in unfinished concrete, metal and wood. The combination of these materials gives it a brawny and muscular appearance,” Brockway explains.
The sense of raw strength is prevalent in brutalist design. It is represented in multiple examples, during various auctions in the past few years. For instance, in November 2014, Palm Beach Modern Auctions presented a cabinet/dry bar by Paul Evans. It featured sculpted doors that opened to reveal two metal drawers and adjustable shelves. The piece, which had been restored, measured 80 inches high by 36 inches wide by 20 1/2 inches in diameter. It sold for $62,500 (with buyer’s premium).
Auctions Add to Brutalism's Following
Palm Beach Modern Auctions also brought forth, in January 2015, an uncommon “Parallelogram” coffee table by Wendell Castle. The table realized $25,000 (with buyer’s premium).
In June 2016, through Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery, a ‘Cityscape’ chandelier in brutalist form, featuring a three-dimensional layout of interconnected brushed steel panels, hanging from a chrome colored rod, realized $2,250 (including buyer’s premium). The lighting device dates to the 1970s and was created by Robert Sonneman. Among the lots to change hands during an August auction at Ahlers & Ogletree was a gilt plaster cactus table lamp, with three textured arms of varying heights each topped with textured glass shades. The mid-to-late 20th-century lamp finished at $1,650 (including buyer’s premium). In addition, a set of five “tortured” sculptural copper candlesticks in graduated heights came forth during the same auction. It is hand wrought by Thomas Roy Markusen in the 1970s. It bears a decorative hammered banding. Stamped with the artist’s initials, the set realized $900 (with buyer’s premium).
As was stated earlier, interest in brutalist aesthetics has had a following since its inception. However, post-1970s the interest was primary among collectors and designers of various disciplines. Yet, pieces are showing up in Hollywood films (most recently in “American Hustle”). Through notable interior designers reimagining a work or living space, brutalism is enjoying a bit more attention.
Prevalence and Prices Spread Appeal
“I think that there has always been a following for brutalist designs, but with a small group of collectors,” remarks Wade Terwilliger, president and marketing director, Palm Beach Modern Auctions. “As prices have increased and brutalist designs have received more attention, these designs have developed a wider audience.
“Additionally, brutalist designs are a sub-category of Modern/20th Century design, which has been particularly hot the past 10 years. As the 20th century market matures, so do its collectors, who begin to expand their collections. They may have started their collections with a Charles & Ray Eames LCM (lounge chair metal), for example, but now their tastes are beginning to branch out.”
Echoing Terwilliger’s sentiments, Hong adds that younger generations are among the groups finding favor with brutalist design. Citing the growth of interest in modern art and design, Hong elaborates. “Brutalism often utilizes raw materials such as wood and metal and has a highly emotive quality due to the handling of the material, most notably the use of texture. In short, Brutalism epitomizes modernism, which speaks to trends of younger collectors, tends to capitalize on the inherent quality of the material used, and still conveys expressive emotive elements in texture and material that highlight the particular skills and vision of a unique artist.
Bringing Brutalism Home
She continues, “Brutalist design elements and artworks can be a little easier to live with than some
other modern genres. Such as minimalism, which is criticized by some as being cold and elitist.”
Brockway points out the work of one contemporary designer in particular, for having a hand in creating greater awareness of the possibilities of brutalism in interior design.
“Yes, we have indeed seen a renewed interest in the brutalist style, and I think it’s safe to say that we can all thank Kelly Wearstler,” Brockway says. “She’s been adept at mixing brutalist pieces with other styles to create rooms that are just flat-out fabulous!”
It also seems appreciation of the aesthetic in its purest form is at the height of appeal of younger geneartions. In addition to infusing this style via items of décor, examples of brutalism are also showing up in graphic design and fashion accessories. In a May 2016 article in The Washington Post, journalist Katherine Arcement explores the world of “Web brutalism,” a trend among designers to make sites “intentionally ugly, difficult,” according to the article. As Arcement explains, this was evident in reviewing the work of a pioneer of this type of web design, Pascal Deville. The approach, as explained on Deville’s site , is about a “ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy.”
Adorned With Brutalist Design
Despite its name, brutalism is also found in more intimate spaces, such as closets and jewelry drawers. In September 2016, an 18-karat yellow gold and diamond vintage bracelet by designer Ed Wiener more than doubled its low estimate, selling for $3,750, during an auction offered by Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. During the same sale, a modernist brutalist 18-karat yellow gold and tourmaline brooch, also by Ed Wiener, realized $1,125; while a pair of British 18-karat yellow gold earclips, circa 1978, changed hands for $813, more than double the lot’s low estimate.
Turning to the subject of wardrobe, more than a few people might use the word “brutal” to describe having to wear high-heeled shoes for an extended period of time. However, shoe designer Chris Francis puts brutalist design front and center in his efforts to create ‘wearable brutalism,’ according to a 2016 article in Metropolis magazine.
Upon viewing the Sunkist building, a brutalist structure located in Sherman Oaks, California, Francis drew on the experience to create a collection of shoes, according to the article. Certainly not the type of shoes you’d expect to see at your local shoe store, or on fashion runways, for that matter. However, they are wearable brutalism, although, as Francis’ describes them: “comfortable, they are not.” The shoes are “hard, rigid, and command presence on their own.”
Perception Shapes Acceptance
Some of the shoes are made from steel, copper and Lucite, while others boast a combination of tweed, leather, brass and suede. In some cases, Francis’ shoes are a demonstration in upcycling, like a shoe made from a wooden kitchen knife holder and a welcome mat.
In the above examples, it seems today’s reasoning supporting the infusion of brutalism mirrors that of the mindset behind early brutalism. This speaks to a universal fact shared among other interests within the antiques and collectibles market: It’s not the style or item of interest that changes, it’s public perception and awareness that ebbs and flows.
Perception and understanding have oft been at the center of acceptance of the brutalist style of design. Ugly, unusual and unconventional have all been used in reference to architecture, furniture, decorative art, and lighting bearing brutalist elements. However, so too have the words innovative, unique, and progressive. As some structures of the early brutalist architectural movement mark several decades of service, they are being vacated, in lieu of new development. In some cases, it’s not only a matter of the building being vacated but demolished. One group, #SOSBrutalism, seeks to bring awareness to brutalist buildings in jeopardy and strives to save the structures. At present, the #SOSBrutalism database contains information about more than 1,000 brutalist buildings around the globe, according to the SOSBrutalism.org site.
Brutalist Design Draws Museum Attendance
At the Vitra Design Museum Gallery in Weil am Rhein, Germany, another effort is currently underway to create awareness of brutalism among all ages. In January 2017 the Museum opened “The Brutalist Playground” exhibition. Described as a “hybrid somewhere between installation and walk-in sculpture for children and adults,” it features reconstructed elements of four brutalist playgrounds developed in post-war Britain.
These brutalist playgrounds were often made of concrete, wood and brick, and quickly became commonplace during the post-war rebuilding era in Britain. At about the same time brutalist architecture started to wane among 1970s society, architects and educators voiced concern and criticism about the hard-edge playgrounds, according to information provided by the Vitra Design Museum Gallery.
The exhibition bears the same geometric and ridged design of the playgrounds adults may recall from their days of youth, with one significant difference: the elements of this playground are foam-composite. The exhibition will be open through April 16, 2017.
Whether it’s playground structures and websites or vintage furniture and lighting, it’s not uncommon
for appreciation of brutalist design to develop over time. However, when it does, it can be a captivating experience, Terwilliger explains.
“Like many collectors, it took some time for me to begin to appreciate brutalist designs. After many years of collecting and dealing in modern and 20th century, I have come to really enjoy the style, especially the early cabinets designed and produced by Paul Evans,” he asserts. “The brutalist wall sculptures by Curtis Jere and Marc Weinstein along with chandeliers by Tom Greene are reasonable and desirable with our collectors.”
With furniture and sculpture leading the charge in the brutalist market of today, there’s opportunity for it to continue to grow, offers Hong.
“Eclectic interiors are making a comeback and an iconic Brutalist piece, such as piece of Paul Evans furniture, makes a strong statement even among other standout works,” she adds.
Being in the position they are, authorities like Hong, Terwilliger and Brockway, may interact with these unequaled items more frequently than most. But that doesn’t mean the sheer creativity and nuances of this style becomes old.
“There was a Paul Evans ARGENTE cabinet that sold recently at auction that I found very appealing,” Terwilliger muses. “There was a lot of movement to the piece, with the contrasting black and silver three-dimensional wave pattern on the doors and also the slate top, a material I have used over the past 30 years in my homes.”
Price Range Creates Competition
Current prices paid at auction for pieces of brutalism reveal an average of $200 to more than $70,000. Availability varies, depending on the type of item, and prominence of the maker, among other factors. However, in addition to the regular appearance of brutalist pieces at auction, at DECASO and similar sites brutalist sculptures, furnishing and lighting available for purchase directly from sellers regularly number in the hundreds.
Selecting an item of brutalist décor for space is that a singular item can be quite impactful on its own. It can set the foundation for an overall appearance, Brockway discusses.
“My rule is to purchase pieces that capture your heart. I’m always looking for unique shapes and designs that can add weight – literally and aesthetically – to a space, and the brutalist style lends itself to this,” she shares. “I recommend picking one statement-making piece that can help anchor the space and from there you can mix in pieces from other eras and styles and color palates.”
Regardless if you are considering the possibility of acquiring items of brutalist influence, or if you’re looking to add to an existing collection or current décor, the experts represented speak about a healthy market, and offer one bit of advice: Do your research.
Tips for Acquiring Brutalist Items
“I always suggest getting to know the gallery or auction house you are dealing with. Check around on their reputation. Look at the quality of merchandise they are representing. Most importantly do your own due diligence prior to making a purchase,” Terwilliger advises.
Hong points to the presence of artist signatures as one tool for determining authenticity.
“Many artists sign pieces and these signatures are documented online via various databases such as Askart.com and Artprice.com. I would also buy from auction houses or dealers with good reputations,” she adds. “Many Brutalist works are hand-worked. I would be cautious to avoid anything that is mass-produced as they are likely later copies ‘in the style’ of a particular artist.”
Brutalism is perhaps a lesson in appreciating something for what it is instead of what it isn’t. A reimagining of the idea of movement and energy where there may appear to be none. Avoiding the act of discounting something immediately, because of the opinion of others, before considering it oneself.
Icons of Brutalist Design
Below are a few names with which to become familiar when looking to expand your knowledge and appreciation of brutalism.
• Alison & Peter Smithson: These pioneering partners of brutalist architecture met while studying architecture in South Yorkshire, England, in the late 1940s. Among their most noted developments was the Robin Hood Gardens in London, England. They coined the term ‘Streets in the Sky’ in defining the apartment complexes they built.
• Paul Evans: A native of Trenton, Pennsylvania, he was a student of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. In his early foray into design he was a demonstrator at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
As interest in brutalism and modern design waned during the late 20th century, Evans’ work drew less appeal as well. However, curiosity surrounding his work. It's described by the New York Times as “aggressive metal furniture." Sadly, Evans missed the renewed appreciation of his artistry. A day after he retired in 1987, he died of a heart attack. He was 55. Today his work produces bidder battles at auction. It draws crowds to museum installations. It also appeals to famous folks, including musician Lenny Kravitz.
Innovators and Influencers
• Nancy Hadley: A 21st-century icon of renovating spaces. Her subjects include homes, businesses
and entertainment facilities. She often incorporates 2D and 3D pieces into her work. Her work could be seen on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” “Trading Spaces,” and “Bar Rescue” among others.
• C. Jere (Curtis Jere): Represents the collaboration of artists Jerry Fels and Kurt Freiler. Freiler, a German immigrant, brings forth an unparalleled skill for inventing new ways to use tools. Fels, a New York artist, ushers in a progressive style of design. Their meeting in the 1940s ultimately led to their forming Artisan House in 1964. The House earned favorable attention for the multi-faceted brutalist décor created by the artisans. Today, the team of Artisan House carries on the tradition and vision set forth by Fels and Freiler.
• Thomas Markusen: This trained silversmith’s body of brutalist work includes ‘smalls’ such as candlesticks, bowls and vases. In addition he's done larger-scale pieces like wall plates and small furniture. After focusing his attention on ‘ornamental architectural blacksmithing,’ as he described it in an article that appeared in Phoenix Home & Garden magazine, in the late 1970s he looked to copper, bronze and brass to expand the palate from which he created. Today his works appear at auction and in museums.
Unorthodox, Unique, Unconventional
• Le Corbusier: Works primarily in steel and re-formed concrete with a focus on geometric design. Le Corbusier was a central figure in the early development of the brutalist style of architecture. A native of Switzerland, at the age of 13 he began studying the enameling and engraving techniques used in watchmaking. Seven years later the early designer set to course on his first home.
• Kelly Wearstler: Referred to as ‘the presiding grande dame of West Coast interior design’ by The New Yorker. This Myrtle Beach-born Gen Xer is a celebrity designer, with a clear-cut brutalist edge. She holds a degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Has internships with notable architecture and design firms under her belt. She also served as a judge on Bravo’s “Top Design” show. Plus, she’s been called to bring her creative eye to the homes of Hollywood starlets.
• Tom Greene: For years this Korean War veteran was a two-job career man. By day he used his talents and skills to develop dental prosthetics. By night and weekend he used similar techniques to create jewelry and lighting in the brutalist style. His unorthodox chandeliers can be seen in casinos, banks, museums, movie studios, and cruise ships.
Sources: Archdaily.com; NYTimes.com; ArtisanHouse.com; NancyHadley.com; Biography.com; www.laderaheightsnews.com;